César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1888) [38:45]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet (1870 rev.1880) [25:04]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Roma della RAI (Franck), Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI (Tchaikovsky)/Sergiu Celibidache
rec. live, 27 July 1957, Rome (Franck), 4 April 1960, Turin (Tchaikovsky)
ISTITUTO DISCOGRAFICO ITALIANO IDIS 6611 [63:49]
A few years ago I reviewed a considerable number of Celibidache’s late Munich recordings on EMI (review review). His slightly less late Stuttgart recordings were taken up by DG (review). I expressed the feeling that, for the finest Celibidache, it may be necessary to sacrifice something of sound quality and investigate his Italian period. In the 1950s and 1960s he was already a mature – nay, great – artist, but his interpretations avoided the later pitfalls of grotesque self-parody. Given that the sound itself was more problematic my hope was – and remains – that we will one day have official masterings of the best of this material.
IDIS, for all its official-sounding name, has collected quite a bit of critical flak for its historical masterings. Nothing is revealed about the source of these recordings. Indeed, the booklet occupies 8 pages – of which three are blank – to tell us little more than you can read in the above header. In the absence of the RaiTrade logo, I presume IDIS have not licensed the original tapes from RAI. Any more recent digital remastering that RAI may have made or broadcast would not be in the public domain. The default assumption, therefore, is that somebody taped these off the air at least fifty years ago. In which case I can only congratulate him on the excellence of his equipment. For their date, these recordings are splendid, convincingly capturing the dynamic range and colours of two extraordinary interpretations. The Franck, in mono, was new to me. I already had my own off-the-air version of the Tchaikovsky, somewhat opaque and in mono only. Here we have quite vivid stereo, an improvement in every way. So, sidestepping the issues raised in this paragraph, we can hear these performances in sound which does not sell them short.
What of the orchestras? The RAI orchestras have made a patchy impression over the years. With Celibidache at the helm, both bands are notable for discipline, blend and sensitive phrasing. The consistent vibrato of the wind – beautifully controlled in this instance – lends both Franck and Tchaikovsky the sort of piquant quality we normally expect from French and Russian orchestras of the period. The pinched sound of the Turin trumpet’s narrow-bore, military-style instrument at the climax of the Tchaikovsky will not please those used to Philharmonia rotundity, but again, we hear something similar on Russian discs too, and the playing as such is good. So any fears that Celibidache’s vision may be impaired by orchestral fallibility can be set aside.
And any fears that Celibidache might “Brucknerize” poor Franck out of existence can be allayed by just looking at the timings. Compared with the exceptionally dramatic, forward-moving Boult and Munch from about the same period, Celibidache adds just a minute to the first movement. Many recent conductors have added more. In the other two movements his timings are similar to theirs.
The first movement introduction impresses by its grading of dynamics and its feeling of inexorable growth. Its repetition in a higher key is justified by an extra tension. This repetition can sound gratuitous in lesser hands. The allegro is superbly vital, the very detailed phrasing combined with surging fervour. The middle movement casts its mournful charm at a serenely flowing tempo while the finale is often galvanic.
There are two points of exceptional interest. Firstly, under Celibidache, the symphony’s much-criticized structure sounds entirely natural, each episode flowing into the next like a vast, but disciplined, improvisation. Secondly, Celibidache continually mixes the sound, giving the inner parts and lines a life of their own, every now and then bringing into relief small details so that nothing is ever repeated in exactly the same way.
A performance to stand at the summit of Franck interpretation, then. My only reservation about recommending it beyond historically-minded collectors is that Munch and Boult – and probably Monteux, which I don’t know – provide equally blazing conviction in stereo. And Janowski, one of the few present-day conductors who appears to believe wholeheartedly in the work, provides similar conviction in state-of-the-art sound.
A “typical” timing of Romeo and Juliet comes in around 20 minutes, so Celibidache in 1960 was beginning to enter his time-stretching phase. Nevertheless, the results are enthralling. The introduction maintains a high level of uneasy expectation. As in the Franck, Celibidache continually mixes and remixes the orchestral strands to create a kaleidoscope of colour. The street-fighting, with razor-sharp rhythmic control and definition, is terrifically exciting even if less headlong than some. In the later stages of the love music I felt that a certain decadent lassitude was invading the music. The thought came to me, but only when it was all over, that, while this performance enriches the music in many ways, the sheer passionate sweep of some other interpretations is missing. The scenes seem in a way stylized, as though we are looking at a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy rather than experiencing their emotions directly in the raw. I don’t mean this as a criticism, I intend only to describe the sort of experience the performance provides.
I must say, too, that it’s some time since I’ve been so completely gripped by this piece from beginning to end. So those who have been diffident about the later Celibidache may find this disc provides a good point of entry to his world.
A performance to stand at the summit of Franck interpretation, and it’s some time since I’ve been so completely gripped by Romeo and Juliet.